What Makes Philately Different

Hobbies come in many types from knitting to horse shoes. Philately is categorized under the broad range of collectible hobbies. But philately is unusual in that it has been a very popular hobby for over 150 years and is still going strong. Most collectible hobbies enjoy a brief period of popularity, like Franklin Mint Commemorative Plates, and then fade into oblivion. Popular collectible hobbies, like philately and numismatics, that have stood the test of time, share four broad traits that contribute to their popularity and help them maintain collector interest across generations.
First, long lasting and popular collecting hobbies need to have an academic or study interest. Not every stamp collector is interested in knowing the intricacies of stamp production or varieties or Postal History. But when a hobby can offer a research and academic interest to its adherents, the hobby appeals to a different kind of collector who will enjoy the hobby at a different level than will the person who is simply trying to obtain as many bottle caps as possible. Philatelists with an academic interest in the hobby tend to be more devoted and usually retain their interest in philately over a period of decades. Such lifelong commitment to a hobby makes it stronger and able to appeal to new converts and maintains the collector’s interest during periods when acquisitions to his collection are few.
Second, hobbies that survive a long time do so because the collectible constantly has new issues. All serious stamp collectors go back and collect stamps that were issued before their interest in philately began. But many collectors are not that serious to begin with and come to the hobby for what ever is new and glitzy and appeals to them at the moment. Further, for a hobby to have real staying power it needs to retain its adherents over most of their life, especially during the many stages of  life where time and circumstances often don’t allow active collecting. Subscriptions to new issues of the country that you collect are an inexpensive way to keep up with your hobby during those periods of less active interest. Cigarette cards were the popular collecting rage in America in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. They had collector societies and thousands of people actively tried to fill in sets from earlier periods before they began collecting. When the cigarette companies began to phase out these premium giveaways about 1940, the collecting of older cigarette cards died. The very real problems of the Postal Service today and the technological changes that have moved many postal users away from first class mail should concern philatelists. Our hobby has a long term interest in seeing a responsible policy of Post Office new issues that are interesting and modest in price.
Third, a long lasting collectible hobby has a product that has some government sovereign association. Coins are collected not only because they have metal in them but because they represent current or previous official currency. Stamps have the same quality. Ornate engraved stock certificates are often more finely produced and more attractive than postage stamps, but because they are of a private quality they have always enjoyed limited collector popularity. Commemorative medals occupy the same position in the coin world as stock certificates do in the stamp world. They never have achieved the popularity of philately and numismatics because they are not official issues.
And fourth, popular long lived hobbies all have well respected authoritative catalogs (like the Scott catalog) that have been around for years and form the basis around which hobbyists build their collection. Don’t ever underestimate this. Philately is appealing because it is finite. True, their are many collectors, especially at the higher levels, who collect covers and postal history where new discoveries and cancellations and  usages are found (and for these people that is often the main appeal). But almost no one comes to the hobby looking for that, because no one comes to the hobby knowing much about postal history in the first place. Esoteric tastes are learned, and what turned stamp savers into philatelists was a catalog and an album page with stamps listed that these collectors knew they could find, own, and mount.
Few hobbies last 150 years, and few are as strong after that amount of time as is our hobby. Never forget that a large number of different circumstances had to coalesce to make our hobby what it is today. When you look at something, like the structure of philately, after it has been assembled you sometimes lose sight of how it didn’t have to be the way that it is and what a wonderful structure it is.


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